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If Michelle Obama Can Rise Above Her Art Deprivation, So Can Anyone


Do you like art? Ever visit an art museum? Yeah, it’s time for a privilege check.

That, at any rate, was the First Lady’s message to America at the opening of the new Whitney Museum in New York City. Against the backdrop of the new $420 million museum, she warned us, “there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, ‘Well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.’ In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.”

She goes on to point out that she, growing up on the South Side of Chicago, was herself one of those art-deprived children.

A Day At the Art Museum

Funny thing about that. I myself once took a group of African-American eight-year-olds through the Chicago Art Institute. Admittedly, they were from the West Side, not the South Side, so maybe they weren’t as underprivileged as Michelle Obama had been. Then again, many of them lived in public housing projects, and I had heard them discussing fathers or other relatives who were incarcerated for drug-related crimes. So I’m guessing this was the demographic the First Lady had in mind.

I got to know these kids in the summer of 2001, when I volunteered at Chicago’s Marillac House. (More on that here.) I supervised a number of field trips in that summer, but I was specially looking forward to the art museum, because I love it and was excited to share it with the kids. We went on the free day (for obvious reasons) which meant that the museum was swamped with school groups and summer camps, and everywhere you looked you saw little clusters of kids (from every ethnic background) in matching-color shirts. Upon receiving my own troop of matching-shirt kids, I led the way into the museum.

‘Is art boring?’ one boy asked me, as we set off.

“Is art boring?” one boy asked me, as we set off.

“No!” I told him. “Art is wonderful. It lets you take something in your imagination and share it with the whole world.” He mulled that over as we squeezed our way through a few packed-to-the-gills galleries.

Reaching a less-crowded area, we paused in front of a painting of a door. “Why would someone paint a door?” asked a little girl. “That’s kind of dumb.”

“Well, what would you paint?” I asked them.

“A unicorn!” said the girl. “A volcano!” said a boy. “Tupac Shakur,” put in another little boy. I assured them that these were all good answers and that I looked forward to enjoying their future masterpieces.

Yes, Poor Kids Get Art

I took them to the gallery with the Monet haystacks. Again, they were dubious. “Didn’t they have any cute animals on this farm?” one girl asked. “It’s silly to paint the same thing six times.”

Some thought that Monet was just a perfectionist who could never quite be satisfied with his haystack painting. Some theorized that haystacks might just be his favorite thing.

“Why would Monet have done that?” I asked. “Do the paintings look exactly the same?”

The question inspired some rousing discussion among the group. Some thought that Monet was just a perfectionist who could never quite be satisfied with his haystack painting. Some theorized that haystacks might just be his favorite thing. “I’ve drawn about a hundred rocket ships,” observed one boy. “I guess it’s okay if he wants to draw six haystacks.”

It took a little prompting for them to notice how the light and shadows were different in each of the paintings. But eventually they started to get it. “Maybe it would be cool,” one boy remarked thoughtfully, “to see how things look at different times of the day.”

“And now you can,” I told him. “Right here in this room. That haystack is surely gone now, but the whole world can see what Monet saw when he looked at it, just by visiting this room.” We were quiet for a moment as the kids took in the room. I reflected with a tinge of sadness that haystacks and sunsets probably weren’t a big part of their concrete-jungle existence.

I really had a blast with those kids at the Art Institute. It was definitely the most memorable of my many visits there. It’s a great age to do things with kids, because they’re old enough to understand things, but still too young to be overly worried about whether paintings can be “cool.”

You know what’s funny, though? For all of their great, goofy questions, not one of my group asked me whether “kids who looked like them” were allowed to visit an art museum. Nobody seemed bothered about whether the place was sufficiently “welcoming.” Those audacious kids! But what can I say? Michelle Obama hadn’t yet come along to explain to us that art museums are “white spaces.” Belated apologies to the Art Institute for that cultural faux pas.